HL Deb 13 April 1910 vol 5 cc646-54

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government how many (1) dirigibles, and (2) aeroplanes designed for naval or military service are available now, and how many will be available in twelve months time. Since I raised a discussion of this subject about a year ago the matter has become of more importance. The question of aviation as regards our national defence has been for some time a source of anxiety to those who are aware of what foreign Powers are doing. Some interest in the matter has been manifested by Members of the House of Commons, notably by the formation of an Aviation Committee and by the purchase, in combination with other people, of an airship with which they hope to demonstrate to the Government and to the public the possibilities of such machines. At present I do not think that the Government fully appreciate the growing importance of the subject, and I hope to-day to ascertain that Ministers are more alive than the public imagine to the importance of preparing in tune for this new development.

Within the last year a very notable advance has been made in the various devices for carrying on warfare in the air. The dirigible balloon is at present the chief weapon of offence. All the Continental nations who claim to be in the forefront in this matter—Germany, France, and Austria—have, so far, applied themselves mainly to the construction of dirigibles, and to my mind it appears rather a startling situation that Germany—with whom I am glad to know that we are on terms of complete friendship at present—is in the position of entire mistress of the air in the same way as this country in times past claimed to be mistress of the sea. Germany has sufficient dirigibles to meet those of all other Powers, and probably to vanquish them, should war ever occur. At present the use of airships in warfare will be auxiliary to the main purposes of an army. Their chief use, I consider, will be to ascertain the position of the enemy by means not hitherto available; but it must be remembered that in some cases preparations have already been made whereby dirigibles hovering over a city or an army which it is desired to attack could pour out explosives, and thus wreck lines of communication, paralyse the nerve centres of cities, and create, as they would tend to do, panic in the army subject to attack by these new weapons.

I am not satisfied from the information which I have been able to gather that His Majesty's Government are making adequate preparations or considering seriously enough this new position of affairs. Since this time last year the use of the dirigible has become recognised as not only possible but inevitable in a great war. Germany and France would not have spent so much money as they have done on the construction of dirigibles had not that been regarded as certain by the great military authorities of those countries. Last year the greatest number of men which any dirigible in the world could carry was carried by a dirigible of the Zeppelin type in Germany, which it was claimed could carry fourteen men. The most recent type of those machines is over 450 feet long, with a diameter of 40 feet, and can carry as many as thirty-four men. If it is assumed that four or eight men are sufficient to form the crew of such a vessel, the balance of weight between that number of men and thirty-four men could be carried as a cargo of explosives from one ton upwards in weight. In France and Germany a gun or tube has been designed, with air pressure behind it, which I am credibly informed enables a projectile dropped from a height to be so accurately directed that the spot upon which it would fall on the earth's surface could be calculated within fifty yards; in other words, a dirigible hovering over the Palace of Westminster could hit either the House of Lords or the House of Commons with unerring accuracy. That shows to what extent progress has been made.

At present this country possesses only a handy little machine, appropriately christened "Baby II," which may be of some use for reconnaissance work, but is not comparable in any way to the great airships possessed by Germany and France. We might as well build a model Dreadnought for sailing on the Serpentine and expect it to be of any use as a real Dreadnought on the high seas. While I wish to give every credit to the gallant officer in charge of ballooning operations at Aldershot, who with very inadequate means has done the best that he possibly could, and in spite of official discouragement has been able to achieve a great deal, I think that the Government must make up their minds that more attention must be devoted to the subject and more money provided in the Army Estimates in future for this branch of the service.

I would like to give the House some idea of how this science of warfare has advanced within the last year or so. In regard to dirigibles, the length has grown from 300 feet to 450 feet, their carrying capacity from fourteen to thirty-four men, their speed has increased from twenty miles to forty miles an hour, and the cost of a first-class airship in Germany has increased from about £10,000 to something like £24,000. I do not think that even that cost ought to be prohibitive, for I do not suppose that there is any warship afloat, not even a submarine, which cost less than that amount. So much for dirigibles. The advance has been even more striking in regard to aeroplanes, which will be another weapon to be used besides dirigibles. Aeroplanes will be of great use in gaining information, and will be able to go out in weather which dirigibles could not withstand. The height attained in the flight of an aeroplane is now 984 feet, the speed has increased from just over thirty miles to forty-eight miles an hour, the greatest distance flown has increased from seventy- two miles to 145 miles without touching the earth, and the longest time that an aeroplane has remained in the air has increased from two hours to four hours seventeen minutes.

What is wanted in this country is more concentrated attention upon the problem of aviation, and it is open to question whether a mixed naval and military authority with the addition of some members outside the Services should not he formed to press forward the subject and to advise the Government as to the latest developments. I agree that dirigibles are of very little use without sheds to accommodate them. The German Government have a great number of airship-sheds either constructed or under construction; so that it is evident that the German military authorities have given every attention to this matter.

As to the probable number of airships in 1911, so far as I have been able to ascertain, this country will have not more than five dirigibles privately owned and publicly owned, including the airship which may or may not come over from France next week. That is a smaller number than any first-class Power in Europe will have, with the single exception of Spain. In 1911 I calculate that France will have at least ten dirigible fighting machines, Germany twenty-five publicly owned or publicly subsidised, and about nine more privately owned; Austria six or seven, Italy six, Russia five, and Belgium two. Japan, and even China, are taking up the subject. I am not going to suggest that we need be afraid of Japanese or Chinese dirigible balloons. But while all other great nations are taking this question up very seriously and realising what it may mean in the next great war, we are rather at the present moment adopting the attitude of folding our hands and waiting to see what other people do and hoping that we will come out allright in the end. I know that is the historic attitude of this country in most matters. It was so in the case of motor-cars and the telephone, but in both of those matters the safety of the country was not jeopardised, whereas the introduction of the dirigible as a practical machine does introduce new problems in war and may seriously affect at the outset of a great campaign the fortunes of that war.

The right hon. gentleman the Secretary of State for War in another place spoke, I was delighted to see, with much more than the usual interest about the whole question of military aviation, and I notice in the Estimates that more money is to be devoted to it. I do not think, however, that the money to be devoted to aviation is anything like adequate if we are to protect ourselves against this new form of weapon in the hands of an enemy. I do not believe for a moment in the theory of artillerists that guns can be constructed capable not only of shooting at but of following these machines. That contention is not tenable for a moment. I know that guns are being constructed which can shoot vertically, but it would be impossible to follow a moving airship with a gun mounted on ever so good and speedy a motor-car. A mot or-car travelling at forty miles an hour with a gun in it would not only be an unsafe vehicle, but I should greatly doubt the ability of a gunner to fire in the air with any accuracy after a few miles in a car travelling at a high speed. The captain of the dirigible, on the other hand, would obviously take a line across country, which would make it extremely difficult if not impossible for the car to follow. Therefore the motor-car, however good, and the gun, however good, would be useless.

There is only one way of meeting an attack by dirigibles and aeroplanes and that is by meeting like with like. Krupps are now making four kinds of guns for the purpose of shooting at dirigibles, but the German authorities admit that these are only to be used in cases where they can be planted outside a fort or town, and in that way used against attack. It would be impossible to follow dirigibles or aeroplanes by means of moving artillery, and if the Government have any such view I venture to say it should be at once dismissed. Looking to the future, it seems to me that what is wanted is co-operation between patriotically-minded civilians in this country and the Government on this question. There are already some ten or twelve Englishmen who can fly in an aeroplane. There are a great many other Englishmen who have been in dirigibles and have put up a great deal of money to promote this science. There are two great newspapers which have helped in it. There are also the members of the Aviation Committee of the House of Commons, who have devoted their time and attention and money to this subject. I do not say that this question should be referred to a Royal Commission, for that is a convenient way of shelving a question which is somewhat difficult; but I do think the Government ought to have a most careful inquiry made into the whole position which foreign Powers occupy in this matter. Pains should be taken to ascertain the aerial strength of those Powers, and we should realise that the time has come when we must tackle this question seriously. We must construct a fleet at least equal to that of any other Power, and to do that I think the Government would be wise to institute some kind of Advisory Committee, or consult a certain number of civilians interested in the subject, and in that way elicit valuable support. I hope that the noble Lord the Under-Secretary for War will be able to give some assurance on these points. The more one studies this the more convinced one is of the seriousness of our position to-day, and there is no question that it would be too late if we waited until war broke out before starting to construct. The present is the time for taking action, and I hope that His Majesty's Government will give the matter the attention it deserves.


My Lords. I fully realise that there is no person in this country who is more entitled to receive the fullest explanation and assurances that the Government can give than the noble Lord who has asked this question, because nobody has identified himself so much with this subject or thrown so much energy into it as he has done, and if I have to differ from him on any point I can assure him that I differ from such an authority with the greatest reluctance. The noble Lord dwelt on the position which foreign Powers occupy and the number of airships they possess at the present time, and he went on to discuss what might be the result should these ships ever be used for purposes of war. He described them as weapons of offence, and compared what we have done up to now in building small airships with the building of miniature Dreadnoughts. With great deference to the noble Lord's knowledge on this matter, I would suggest that he would be a very bold man at the present stage who would compare an airship to a Dreadnought, and there are a great many people who will even deny to a dirigible balloon or aeroplane, or, in fact, any machine that travels through the air, in its present stage of development the title to be considered a weapon of offence. But, at any rate, I think my noble friend will agree with me that all these things are very much in their infancy. It is doubtful how far they could be used under absolutely warlike conditions, and we and all other countries who are dealing with this question are simply experimenting at the present time.

We are by no means unaware of the importance of the question or of what is being done in other countries. At the same time, we do feel that it is quite possible that, in studying as we are doing all the great and complicated scientific problems wound up in this question and trying to provide solutions for them, we may be making just as much progress as the countries which are spending a great deal of money experimenting on a large scale. The noble Lord spoke of the necessity of having a carefully prepared scheme. As he knows, the matter was considered by the Committee of Imperial Defence last year, and we are now carrying out their recommendations. The Navy take over the provision of the type of airship known as the rigid, whereas the War Office are going to deal with the non-rigid dirigible, which is a type of machine altogether more suited for land conditions; and for the present we are not dealing with the question of aeroplanes at all. I will explain why we have taken up that line.

As we know, aeroplanes are machines which are used by private individuals. Great progress has been made with them by private individuals working on their own, and it is quite conceivable that in a short time we may all of us have our own aeroplanes. An aeroplane is a convenient and handy machine, but the same cannot be said about a dirigible. I do not look forward to any time when we shall have our own private dirigibles. They may become public conveyances or something of that sort, but there is not the scope for private enterprise in the matter of dirigibles that there is in that of aeroplanes, and one cannot help feeling that a Government Department is the worst-organised thing in the world for conducting experiments on the lines on which private individuals are working. It is rather like using a steam hammer to break an egg. Far the best results would probably be achieved in the long run if we watch what these very enterprising private individuals are doing and take advantage of the results. That, of course, we cannot do in the case of dirigibles, and we are, I will not say developing a programme of dirigibles because they are in an experimental stage at the present time, but the experimental stage cannot be carried on without having a certain number of airships to experiment with.

In answer to the immediate question which the noble Lord asks, I can tell him what our fleet of airships will probably be next year. There is being constructed for the Navy one of these large rigid dirigibles, and that, and possibly a second, may be available during the next twelve months. With regard to what we have in the way of non-rigid dirigibles for Army purposes, there is the airship which the noble Lord has referred to as "Baby II," and there is the new one the construction of which has been commenced and which ought to be ready in the next twelve months. Then there are the two foreign airships which are coming over—the "Lebaudy" and the "Clément-Bayard," the one which is coming over as the result of the action of the Morning Post and the other which is coming over as the result of the action of the Parliamentary Committee. Both these airships will be tested when they get here, and we understand that through the patriotic efforts of the Morning Post if the "Lebaudy" satisfies that test it will be purchased by them and presented to the War Office. We shall be prepared, if tests, price, and other conditions are satisfactory, to do the same with the "Clément-Bayard." Therefore, supposing both of these come into our possession in that way we ought to have in twelve months four Army dirigibles, though that is nothing like the number of airships possessed by other countries.

We are following out our policy of watching very carefully, of experimenting, and of trying to advance the general theory as much as possible. In this connection the noble Lord probably knows that we have appointed an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which has upon it as members some of the leading scientists in the country, who are doing excellent service in working out the complex problems which at present, I will not say stand in the way of success, but constitute one of the chief difficulties with regard to this question. Then, of course, we have our balloon factory at Aldershot, which is under the superintendence of one of the most experienced engineers in the country, Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman, and we have the balloon school under the man who has done so much for us in this connection, Colonel Capper. We are spending considerably more this year than we were before. I understand that the Navy is spending £35,000 in this year's Estimates, and the Army is spending £71,000, a total of £106,000. That compares extremely favourably with the expenditure of public money by other countries, as far as we know. Although it is quite true, as the noble Lord said, that we have not got and are not proposing immediately to provide a large fleet of dirigibles and aeroplanes, I can assure him that we are not simply doing nothing, but that we are working very hard along carefully thought-out and, I think, practical lines; and that we are only waiting before developing the policy along bigger lines for the time when the science of aviation shall have reached a point at which we can definitely say that dirigibles, aeroplanes, flying machines, and so on are of real practical use for military service.

House adjourned at five minutes past five o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.